May 21, 2003

· Books

Over the last few days I’ve been reading A History of Economic Thought, by Lionel Robbins. The book is a version of a lecture course he gave at the LSE in 1979 to a mixed audience of undergraduate and postgraduate students. It’s not the standard “book of lectures” that’s been reworked and cleaned up into a more considered argument. Rather, the lectures were tape-recorded by his grandson and then (just a few years ago) transcribed and very lightly edited. So it really is just Robbins talking in 55-minute segments. The first lecture begins with him telling the students about the syllabus and reading list, like any class. It’s easy to imagine yourself sitting in the room.

I bring this up because, yesterday, Chris Bertram linked to a a pseudonymous piece by a teacher who’d gone back to University and been appalled by the quality of the instruction. Lectures were boring, PowerPoint ruled, students spent the time text-messaging on their phones, playing solitaire or sleeping. “Only one tutor actually deviated, by choice and conviction, from using this technological tool,” says the author, “and he made the sessions a joy, involving the class in discussion, requiring us to think issues through and be critical, drawing on topical references to make his points more accessible and clear.”

Robbins just stands there and talks his way through the material at a fair clip. At least once each lecture he will read aloud from the text under discussion, often for several long paragraphs at a time. I’m almost half way through at the moment and, over the course of sixteen lectures, Robbins has so far asked the class exactly one direct question:

Who changed our whole idea of the nature of the starry universe? Come on. [Students call out the name of Galileo.] Nearly. He had a distinguished predecessor. We must not waste time. Copernicus.

So much for engaging the class. To be fair, he has also asked them “Have any of you ever read The Characters of La Bruyère?” and “Have any of you read Voltaire’s little satire on the physiocrats called The Man with forty écus?” but does not pause to find out the answer in either case.

The lectures are actually pretty entertaining, and often quite absorbing. But I’m sure Robbins would get trashed in his end-of-semester evaluations if he taught the class at most universities today. “Too much chalk and talk” the comments would say. (Students have picked up the jargon.) Robbins doesn’t use all that much chalk, come to think of it. Mainly talk.

Some of the best courses I took as an undergrad were like this, where the Professor just stood up and spoke for an hour. The problem is that some of the worst courses were like this, too. I imagine the same is true with PowerPoint, though I don’t use it myself for classes. There’s more to making it interesting than the technology at hand.

Here’s a bit more Robbins:

“I find Quesnay almost intolerably difficult. You need a towel around your head to read Quesnay.”

“If any of you see a copy of [Boisguilbert’s Détail de la France], for goodness sake do not dispose of it without consulting someone expert in these matters; it is worth quite a lot of money nowadays.”

Marx, I ought to say, whether you agree with him or disagree with him, was probably the best historian of economic thought of his time, although I personally think—and this is a value judgement—that Marx was frightfully unfair to some of the people he criticised.”

“I have been told that meetings of the American Economic Association … in which trainloads of Americans go to the skyscrapers in different capital cities of different states in the United States … and there is a sort of cattle market for junior and senior economists to improve their own departments. It does not work badly, you know. Let us not look down our noses at this system … it hasn’t turned out awfully badly as regards the production of economists in the United States this century.”

And so on and so forth (as he tends to say himself). Definitely not Prof. Trendy.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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